Review: Nikon D300
Pros: Excellent image quality, best-in-class LCD screen, interface improvements, extreme customizability
Cons: Difficult to make all essential adjustments while looking through the viewfinder, hard to use the camera one-handed, no mode dial
One of the surest ways to tell that the digital SLR camera market has reached a fair level of maturity is to observe the shelf-life of current models. Five years ago, camera manufacturers replaced models at least once a year, and in some cases, even revved models faster than that. Nowadays, things move much more slowly, thanks largely in part to the sophistication of current releases. The Nikon D200 is a prime example. Released two years ago, it was such a good product that Nikon only recently replaced it with the $1,799 D300.
The $1,399 D200 was a very impressive camera. Experienced D200 shooters will be surprised, then, that Nikon found so many things to improve, while new users will definitely want to include the D300 in their short list of candidate cameras.
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The Big Changes
When you turn it around, you might notice the slightly larger 3" LCD screen (up from 2.5" on the D200), but in general, this camera's form and interface is similar to the D200 (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Nikon D300 has seen few physical changes, though D200 owners will notice some differences in button locations.
The D300 is an incredibly sturdy, well-made camera, and while Nikon doesn't tout the camera's body as weatherproof, the chassis includes rubber seals that make it resistant to dust and moisture.
As with its predecessor, the D300 has a lot of buttons and controls on it (Figure 2). On the one hand, this is great because it means you'll spend less time digging into a menu. On the other hand, it can make the camera somewhat intimidating for Nikon newbies trying to figure out where every control is. Buttons and dials are spread over every face of the camera except for the very bottom.
Figure 2. The top of the camera follows the layout of most Nikon SLRs, with a big status display to the right, and a cluster of controls on the left.
For the most part, the shooting layout is the same as on the D200. All essential shooting controls are accessible with a button on the outside of the camera, and are generally easy to reach, even when looking through the viewfinder. Shooting mode, ISO, white balance, quality, and burst mode are on a big dial on the left side of the top of the camera. The right side is covered with the very large status LCD, and a few additional controls, including the shutter button.
However, Nikon did change the position of a few buttons (Figure 3). For example, the bracketing button, which used to sit in the upper left corner of the camera back, was replaced with the Play button, which puts the camera into image review mode. This makes sense, as the buttons on the left side of the LCD screen are now related entirely to playback and menu selection. As for what happened to Auto bracketing, we'll get to that later on.
Figure 3. The layout of the D300's back differs from the D200. All playback and menu controls are now on the left side of the screen.
In addition to being larger, the new LCD screen is substantially higher resolution: 922,000 pixels versus the D200's 230,000. The D300's LCD uses a technology that breaks up the regular pixel grid pattern and makes for a screen that looks very smooth and is well-suited to judging detail and sharpness. Set the D300 next to any other camera, and you’ll be surprised to see how much better the D300 LCD is.
Like most of its competition, the D300 now includes a built-in sensor cleaning mechanism, which works by shaking the low-pass filter, a glass plate that sits in front of the sensor. You can set the D300 to automatically clean its sensor when the camera is powered on and off, or activate the cleaning mechanism manually. The sensor cleaner does keep some particulate matter off of your sensor. However, it’s no guarantee that your sensor will always be clean, so you still might have to resort to manual cleaning occasionally.
The D300 is a very sturdy camera, with excellent ergonomics that give it a secure fit in your hand. (And, for those who care about such details, the D300 has a pleasant shutter sound.)
The D200's viewfinder was very good, yet Nikon has managed to improve it slightly. The viewfinder now offers 100% coverage of your image, up from around 95%. This is the only camera in its class to offer so accurate a viewfinder, and for shooters who want to minimize their post-production, it's a valuable change.
The viewfinder also offers a detailed status readout, including the current ISO setting. Theoretically, this means you don't have to take your eye away from the viewfinder while working, since you can see a full readout of everything you need to know. However, Nikon’s control layout hampers this kind of shooting.
For example, let’s assume you’re holding the camera in a traditional grip. Your left hand is supporting the camera by holding the lens, and your right hand is holding the camera grip, with your forefinger on the shutter button. While looking through the viewfinder, you can easily reach the exposure compensation controls, program shift control -- or if you’re in a priority mode, the aperture or shutter speed control -- with your shutter finger.
But, if you’re looking through the viewfinder and decide you want to make an ISO change, you have to take your left hand, let go of the lens, and push a button on the top left side of the camera, then move a control dial with your right hand to make a change (Figure 4). This is pretty much impossible to do quickly while looking through the viewfinder.
Figure 4. The D300’s ISO control is not easily accessed while looking through the viewfinder.
The D300 is the only camera in its class that eschews a mode dial for a mode button. You often have to change from program to a priority mode quickly, as the situation around you dictates a new exposure strategy. I find a mode dial much faster than Nikon’s button-based approach. Long-time Nikon users, however, will be accustomed to it.
By default, controls on the D300 are interlocked, meaning you usually have to push a button, hold it down, and turn a dial to effect a change. This helps ensure that you don’t accidentally alter a setting. By changing a custom function, though, you can set the controls so that you don’t have to hold the buttons while turning the control dials.
The D300 is laden with these types of customization options. For example, on the front of the camera, to the left of the lens mount, are two buttons you can reach easily with your shutter finger. By default, these buttons provide depth of field preview and activation of the auto bracketing feature. (This is where Nikon moved the bracketing control when it left the back of the camera). While these functions are probably what most users will want, both buttons are customizable (Figure 5). You can’t stick just any function on these buttons, but there is a good assortment of common options.
Figure 5. The two function buttons on the front of the camera are programmable, one of several handy customization features.
Finally, you can also build a custom menu containing any menu items that you wish. This lets you consolidate oft-used menu items into one place.
No other camera in this market has so many levels of customization, and Nikon deserves a lot of praise for making the camera so flexible.
That said, using the D300’s menu system is a bit of a chore. Most menus have a huge number of options and require a lot of scrolling. Nikon should take advantage of the D300’s high-resolution screen and redesign the menu system for faster access.
You navigate the menus using a four-way rocker switch. A press on either side allows you to move around the menus, while pressing in the center or pressing OK selects the current item. I found it too easy to press the center of the button while navigating, which made for many accidental menu selections. I'd prefer something more akin to the joystick-like control on the Canon 40D; but then, I'm more familiar with Canon cameras.
Finally, while the D300 provides an incredibly detailed status LCD on the top of the camera, Nikon has pulled a feature from the lower-end D40 and added a Shooting Information page that you can displayed on the LCD. It's a smart way to easily check the camera’s settings when you're using a tripod.
When it comes to sheer number of features, Nikon has been at the front of the pack for quite a while, and with the D300 the lead has increased even further. What's more, while all camera manufacturers -- including Nikon -- often come up with features that seem to serve little purpose other than to pad a feature list, the D300 bristles with a lot of features that are very useful and aren’t found on other cameras.
For starters, Nikon has greatly improved the D300’s autofocus system. Where the D200 had an 11-point autofocus system, the D300 offers 51 points, 15 of which are dual axis, meaning they measure focus on both the horizontal and vertical axes. In addition to its exceptional focus accuracy, the D300 is also extremely quick to focus.
There's also the option of backing off on the autofocus capability. You can change the camera to use 9 or 21 points if you want to simplify the autofocus options. Finally, you also have the option of 51-points with 3D tracking, which lets the camera track a moving object within frame and keep it in focus. The D300 is amazingly adept at focus tracking, a feature that's tailor-made for sports shooters.
Other welcome features include a built-in intervalometer for time-lapse shooting, in-camera image editing, and a very nice built-in help system. Why other manufacturers don’t include such powerful software in-camera remains a mystery to me.
Finally, the ability to output HD video using an HDMI connector is a fantastic addition that allows you to view extremely high-quality images on an HD monitor or TV, directly from the camera.
As with most other cameras released in the last six months, the D300 includes a Live View that lets you use the camera’s LCD screen as a viewfinder. While one of the main advantages of an SLR is the opportunity to work with a high-quality optical viewfinder, when you're shooting products or landscapes, the ability to mount the camera on a tripod and use the LCD as a viewfinder can greatly ease your shooting.
What makes a live LCD view tricky on an SLR is that there’s a mirror in front of the sensor, which bounces light from the lens up into the viewfinder. Unfortunately, the sensor needs to be exposed to capture an image that can be displayed on the viewfinder. When the mirror is up, light can’t reach the camera’s autofocus sensors, so focusing and exposing the sensor simultaneously becomes complicated.
To address this issue, Live View on the D300 has two modes. In Handheld mode, a press of the AF-On button flips the mirror down so that the camera can autofocus, and then once focus is achieved, the mirror flips back up and Live View is activated. This is how Live View works on most SLRs, and it's fine for most situations.
In Tripod Mode, the D300 keeps the Live View truly live while the camera's focusing. It does this by using a contrast-detecting focus mechanism based on an analysis of the image that has been captured by the LCD. This is just like the autofocus mechanism used in a point-and-shoot camera. It’s slow, which is why you need to be tripod mounted, but it’s very effective. What’s more, the D300 lets you navigate to any point in the image and select that as a focus point. It's handy for landscape shooting, as it allows you to precisely select a focus point while tripod-mounted.
Image Quality and Performance
The D200 shot high-quality images, but was a little behind Canon in terms of high ISO performance, especially in low light. With the D300, Nikon has solved these problems. The D300 shoots excellent, low-noise images at ISOs up to 3200.
With the D300, Nikon has upped the pixel count of the camera’s sensor from 10.2 megapixels to 12.3, and it did so without an accompanying increase in noise. While this pixel increase doesn't translate into a vast change in maximum print size, it’s still nice to have the extra pixels, especially since there’s not a noise price to pay for them.
The D300 is a very speedy performer, with no perceptible shutter lag, seemingly instant boot and wake-from-sleep, and a burst rate of 6 frames per second. You’ll even get 8 fps if you attach the optional battery grip.
Is It for You?
The D200 was a great camera, albeit one plagued by weak noise performance at high ISO. With the D300, Nikon has solved this problem and made a number of positive changes throughout the hardware and software. If you’re shopping for a mid-range SLR, this camera should definitely one of your final candidates -- you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a practical feature it doesn’t have. However, everyone has their own ideas of what makes a good interface and what feels comfortable, so before you buy, get your hands on the camera and take it for a test spin.